John Oliver Explains
July 2, 2018

If you don't quite understand what gene editing is, or you watched the Rock's latest movie and think we're just a few lab accidents away from 30-foot wolves taking over the planet, John Oliver is here to help.

Gene editing is often talked about with both excitement and alarm, Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. Many think it's "either going to kill all disease or kill every last one of us," but gene editing has actually been in existence for awhile. The latest technology is CRISPR, which is like copying and pasting in a Word document, Oliver explains; theoretically, scientists can find something they want to change on a strand of DNA, cut it out, and paste in a fix. The potential is "huge," he said, with scientists being able to possibly use CRISPR to eradicate cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia, but gene editing is also "wildly difficult," as many diseases have multiple genes that contribute to them.

CRISPR's underlying technology is relatively inexpensive, and there are biohackers who fork over a few hundred dollars for their own kits, frustrating scientists who worry that one accident by a biohacker will set the whole field back. Oliver used two examples to show the different approaches to gene editing — a biohacker named Josiah Zayner who injected himself with DNA modified using CRISPR in order to get larger muscles (it didn't work, Oliver noted) and a scientist named Kevin Esvelt who wants to introduce mice to Nantucket that have been genetically edited so they cannot pass Lyme disease to ticks. He will be extremely careful, but is worried because there's no way he can completely control all aspects of the study.

Ecosystems are extremely delicate, and one wrong move can completely mess things up. What's worrying to Oliver is people who aren't concerned about the consequences, as well as those who believe certain medical conditions are flaws and feel the need to "fix" people who don't think they have a problem. "Balancing risk and potential rewards is going to be tricky," Oliver said. Watch the video — which has some coarse language and images of fake mice and ticks that might scar you for life — below. Catherine Garcia

June 18, 2018

On Sunday's Last Week Tonight, John Oliver used an annoying song performed by children to warn viewers about Chinese President Xi Jinping's consolidation of power and the cult of personality that surrounds him.

In a segment focusing solely on Xi — referred to by Chinese state media as Xi Dada, or "Big Uncle Xi" — Oliver discussed how he's riding high on the economic wave that preceded him, and two major projects: the Belt and Road initiative, which involves spending $1 trillion on infrastructure in more than 60 countries to reshape global trade with China in the middle of it all, and a crackdown on political corruption.

Those are the things that Xi wants you to know, Oliver said, not that his anti-corruption purge has targeted his rivals, with some being tortured, and that Xi "has clamped down noticeably on any form of dissent whatsoever." That includes having online censors ban phrases like "personality cult" and references to Winnie the Pooh, since some people like to mock Xi by saying he resembles everyone's favorite pantsless bear.

There's more, Oliver warns — the Chinese government is giving every citizen a social credit score, and if you're docked enough points, maybe for fraud or smoking in a non-smoking section, you won't be able to have high-speed internet or purchase plane or train tickets. As Xi is trying to expand his global influence, he's becoming more authoritarian, but don't just listen to Oliver — take it from the children he hired to sing a song all about Xi's dark side, cribbed from China's own propaganda film touting the Belt and Road initiative. Watch the video (with cursing) below, and get ready to spend all Monday humming that irritating ditty. Catherine Garcia

October 10, 2016

Time is running out for President Obama to follow through with his promise to close down the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, and John Oliver warns if he doesn't get it done before he's out of office, terrible things could happen under the next president.

On Sunday's Last Week Tonight, Oliver called the fact that Gitmo is still open one of Obama's "inarguable failures." A poll found that 52 percent of Americans think it should remain open, and while he sees the appeal — "potentially dangerous people are locked up and far away" — there are more reasons to shut it down. First, it's very expensive — in 2015, it cost $445 million to keep it operating, or $7 million per person. It's also giving countries like Sudan, Iran, and Libya reasons to call the U.S. out for rights violations.

After explaining the history of Guantanamo and how the U.S. still sends a measly rent check to Cuba every year, Oliver launched into details about the detainees. Leaked documents have shown that of the 710 prisoners released, most were not the "worst of the worst," like some politicians like to say. Almost half were found to be entirely innocent, Taliban conscripts, or transferred for no reason listed on their file, and some were incarcerated because they had a certain type of Casio watch that was known to be used by al Qaeda members as timers. There are just 61 detainees still at Guantanamo, with 31 in a difficult group — they haven't been charged with a crime but are also not cleared to be released. Even Obama, a constitutional law professor, is struggling to figure out what to do with them, and it's only going to get more complicated, Oliver said: The current commander of Gitmo is seeking to renovate the infirmary, saying it will be beneficial as the detainee population ages.

Americans have to ask if this is something we're okay with, Oliver said — having people languish in a prison without charges, while Vladimir Putin judges us for "medieval" practices. We also need to keep in mind our buddy John Oliver, who says that because he owns a Casio watch and has been making fun of Trump for more than a year, he could soon wind up in Cuba. Watch the video — complete with Oliver's Putin impression — below. Catherine Garcia

July 4, 2016

The United States has been doing very well since 1776, John Oliver admits, but he still wants to remind Americans what they gave up by gaining independence. In a Last Week Tonight web-only video, Oliver explains that in addition to missing out on meat pies and bowler hats, the U.S. is also devoid of extreme pessimism. "Americans are optimistic people who believe the sky is the limit, whereas in Britain we are painfully aware of our limits," Oliver said. "In fact, just look at the British sky itself; even the sun is incapable of asserting itself there. British people never made the mistake of developing self-esteem." Watch the video below to find out what else Americans gave up so many years ago. Catherine Garcia

February 15, 2016

Every American deserves an equal vote, John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight — "even idiots" — but new laws in several states are making it harder for hundreds of thousands of people to cast their ballots.

In the states where voters have to show photo ID to prove who they are, people who don't have a driver's license — from grandmothers who no longer drive to "the reclusive uncle who rollerblades everywhere" — have to go and apply for a photo ID in order to vote. The laws affect a lot of people, Oliver said: In Texas, 500,000 registered voters do not have the necessary ID to vote.

The major problem, he continued, is that it can be incredibly difficult to get the ID. Oliver shared the story of 68-year-old Doris Clark in Pennsylvania, who was turned away three times for a voter ID card — she was told the clerks needed to see her original birth certificate, then original Social Security card, then her husband's death certificate for proof of her married name. In some areas, the offices are barely open — in one part of Wisconsin, the ID-issuing office was open the fifth Wednesday of the month for just a few hours. "Voting is a right," Oliver said. "If you take it away, you ruin democracy."

Studies show that these restrictions tend to disproportionately impact African American and Latino voters, Oliver said, and they also don't do anything to stop fraudulent activity like vote buying, vote tampering, and ballot box stuffing. The only thing the laws target is voter impersonation, which is incredibly rare and "a stupid crime," Oliver said. "Stand in line at a polling place and risk five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, all to cast one, probably not consequential extra vote. In terms of pointless crimes, it's right up there with forging a Bed, Bath & Beyond coupon. It's a lot of trouble with low reward." Watch the video below, and get ready for the hypocrisy at the end when Oliver enlightens the audience on "ghost voting." Catherine Garcia

September 7, 2015

Last Week Tonight is still on break, but host John Oliver wanted to make sure he prepared students for the upcoming academic year. In a web exclusive video, Oliver warns that chemistry is going to be really disappointing, since you "probably won't even learn how to cook meth, and really, that's all anyone is in it for," and shares that both Romeo and Juliet die in the end of the famous play, but you "actually don't feel that bad about it." Oliver saves most of his disdain for math, telling students that all you really need to know when you grow up is addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division: "I'm an adult with a job and I can't remember if a logarithm is some kind of exponent, Kenny Loggins' first album, or a method of lumberjack birth control. Just ignore it." Catherine Garcia

August 3, 2015

When the Chinese pandas at the National Zoo have as much right to representation in the U.S. Congress as any resident in the District of Columbia, you know there's a problem. So says John Oliver, who explored the issue of D.C.'s experience with a lack of representation on Sunday's Last Week Tonight.

As Oliver explains, even though Washingtonians pay federal taxes, fight in wars, and contribute to a GDP that's higher than 16 states', they are not represented by a member of Congress able to vote on their behalf. They do have a champion in Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, but as Oliver puts it, she only has "pretend power," as she is unable to vote on the House floor.

The segment gives a brief rundown of D.C.'s political history (yes, residents couldn't vote in presidential elections until 1964), as well as clips of lawmakers giving a variety of excuses as to why D.C. should just be content with the way things are now. In 2009, a bill was introduced that provided a glimmer of hope for those who wanted to see D.C. get voting power, but the Senate added an amendment that would repeal all of D.C.'s gun control laws, including its ban on semi-automatic weapons, and would alter its ability to enact future gun control legislation. "It was the kind of amendment NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre dreams about as he sleeps in his bullet-filled bathtub, I presume," Oliver quipped. The bill was dropped, and there hasn't been anything close since.

Not wanting the segment to end on a low note, Oliver brought in a gaggle of children to sing a song about what it would be like if D.C. became a state, and the simple steps that would have to be taken in case people become adamant about only having 50 (sorry, Florida). Watch the clip below. Catherine Garcia

March 9, 2015

People tend to believe that daylight saving time has something to do with farmers, but they're wrong, says the narrator on Last Week Tonight's latest installment of the informative and hilarious "How is This Still a Thing?" segment. In fact, it was first introduced by the Germans during World War I, to save fuel. "That's right," the narrator intones, "you lost an hour of sleep this morning because of Kaiser Wilhelm."

These days, it neither saves electricity nor helps anyone — in fact, it may lead to an increase in car accidents and workplace injuries, Last Week Tonight says, citing research: "That's right, what you lose in sleep you gain in mortal danger." For more information, perspectives from around the world, wry sentences that begin with "that's right," and insults lobbed at cows, watch the video below. —Peter Weber

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